Commons Hansard
10 Jan 2006

Animal Welfare Bill

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): It was in keeping with the traditions of the House and our people that we were the first nation to protect animals by statute. Since that step was first taken as long ago as the early 19th century, attitudes have undergone a radical change. Over the past 200 years, legislators, the Executive and the courts have stamped out a litany of mediaeval practices: bull-running, bear-baiting, cockfighting, the use of dogcarts, random and pre-meditated acts of cruelty -

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Fox hunting.

Margaret Beckett: I was not going to mention that.


Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): May I give my hon. Friend a specific example of the contents of the regulatory impact assessment? I refer to regulations governing the selling of pet animals over the internet. That measure has to be debated properly because it appears to exclude the advertising of pet animals or the selling of animals on auction sites, and the trade is one that should be properly regulated.

Mr. Ainsworth: I agree. In fairness, the Government have said that they will consult before introducing any of these regulations, but I shall have a little to say about the inadequacy of Statutory Instrument Committees as a means of ensuring thorough and sound debate.

I shall quote from the regulatory impact assessment; this is the nub of the issue. Paragraph 31 says:

"The Animal Welfare Bill is an enabling measure, setting out certain fundamental principles but leaving detailed legislation to regulation and codes of practice."

That, really, is the trouble. Even with the commitment to consult on the regulations and codes of practice, that is an inadequate way for Parliament to consider detailed legislation. Unamendable statutory instruments get a maximum of one and a half hours of obscure debate in Committee. I speak as a former Government assistant Whip, so I know whereof I speak - Government Members are not exactly encouraged by the Whips to participate in the proceedings.

I think I know why the Government have taken this approach. It is partly to prevent the Bill from becoming too long, complex and inflexible, and I have some sympathy with that. However, the Bill is enabling only in the sense that it enables the Government to do virtually whatever they want.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): The hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) just intervened to make a point about the internet, which would not, of course, have been the subject of an intervention 10 years ago. The framing of the Bill means that we will be able to deal with new developments through secondary legislation.

Mr. Ainsworth: That is a fair point. I fully understand the need for flexibility and I am sympathetic to that, as I have just said, but there are issues arising from the Bill's structure, and they are of concern not only here in Parliament but to all those whose lives and livelihoods, duties and responsibilities are likely to be affected by the regulations and codes of practice at a later date.


Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ainsworth: Yes, but for the last time.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): The hon. Gentleman refers to ambiguities. The new leader of the Conservative party has said that he will bring back hare coursing, stag hunting and fox hunting. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with his leader?

Mr. Ainsworth: I am not surprised that the issue of fox hunting has been raised. I do not think that you would be particularly pleased, Madam Deputy Speaker, if I went too far down that route. One of the advantages of the proposed legislation is the emphasis that is given to sound scientific evidence prior to introducing measures. One of the problems with the fox hunting legislation is that it was not based on scientific evidence. I do not want to go any further on that subject.


5:05 p.m.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): First, as the current chair of the associate parliamentary group on animal welfare, I want to pay tribute to Tony Banks, who was a leading member of the group. Only the day before we broke for the Christmas recess, I had a meeting with him in which he outlined his daring proposals to put a ban on Canadian products in order to stop the horrendous slaughter of seal pups. He is a great loss to us all, and I am sure that he would have made a very interesting speech today.

Unfortunately, I will probably make quite a boring speech. As other Members have said, the reality is that this Bill is the most important piece of animal legislation since Lloyd George was Prime Minister. I support the fact that it is an enabling Bill, as it is the only way forward. Members should cast their minds back to the time of the Factories Act 1961 and the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963 - I happened to be a safety officer at the time - which were horrendous. The then Government said that they had to be got rid of, as they could not be adjusted and were out of date - they referred to things in the 19th century - and brought forward the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, which has served us well ever since. I take the point of the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) that the Bill provides the opportunity for a Government not to bring forward secondary legislation, but I think that he would agree that the animal welfare lobby in the House is such that any Government or Minister who tried to hide behind that would get a very rough ride. I am sure that our Ministers are not considering doing so.

While I support the Bill in general, I have one or two reservations about it. I wrote to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) with regard to animal sanctuaries. I must declare an interest as I am a patron of two animal sanctuaries in north Cumbria. One is the Wetheral animal refuge, set up many decades ago by the well-known figure Alfred Brisco to provide a rest home for pit ponies, with the unfortunate slogan, "even pit ponies deserve a fair crack at the whip". It is an excellent facility, is very professionally run and has provided a service in rehousing pets for many years. I am proud to be a patron of it. A much smaller sanctuary, Stonehouse, in Moorhouse in my constituency, is run by an amazing lady called Elizabeth McDonagh and many friends. It is a small sanctuary, known to the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment, who spent a pleasant afternoon there last year when visiting my constituency, and it takes discarded animals, whether farm animals, old greyhounds or ferrets - there are plenty of ferrets. It is very well run.

There have been some horrendous cases, however, of people - I do not think that they are bad people - who have been overwhelmed by the demand to rehouse animals. They have reached the point at which they cannot cope, and there have been cases of cruelty. There is an argument about licensing and registration, and I think that we can probably get away with registration - the advantage of an enabling Bill is that if we are wrong, we can change it. The duty of welfare care will apply to sanctuaries as it will to anywhere else. We should therefore give it a try. There could be a difficulty whereby bureaucracy puts good sanctuaries out of business, but the matter must be considered.

The second issue that I want to raise is the tethering of animals. We have all received briefings, and I am grateful to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for its briefings on many subjects, including tethering. Sadly, I witnessed an instance of it some years ago when returning from a rugby match in Yorkshire. A terrified horse was tethered at the roadside, probably because it was shy of traffic and the owner had decided that that was the way to cure it. Juggernauts were going past all the time. I stopped the car and telephoned the police and the RSPCA. I was told "You are right, and we have received a number of complaints, but the law does not allow us to do anything, because the law is not being broken." I hope that the Minister will ensure that the code of practice includes rules on the tethering of animals, especially horses, near roads.

Tony Baldry: The Select Committee made it very clear that the Government should consider whether mental suffering should be specified in the Bill. The position seems simple to me. The Bill will cover physical suffering; the hon. Gentleman's point relates entirely to mental suffering. Why should we not incorporate mental suffering in the definition of suffering in clause 4?

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I do not disagree with that, but I assume that the duty of care would constitute a catch-all, and that we could use it in such cases.

I am a great supporter of circuses, and I realise that they provide the first live entertainment for many children. I do not want them to disappear. I fear that too many children spend too much time in front of the television, and not enough time going out and having real-life experiences. But in the United Kingdom in 2006 there is no place and no need for wild animals in circuses. I think that it is Bobby Roberts's circus that has a lone elephant - not a troupe of elephants - which travels around the country. I believe that it is 52 years old. That should be stopped. Similarly, the welfare of tigers, lions and zebras, which are wild animals, cannot be catered for in circuses.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): The hon. Gentleman has dismissed television, but does he not agree that one of the advantages of modern television and wildlife photography is that children can grow up experiencing what wildlife is really like through television without needing to see it in circuses, which are inherently cruel in their way of presenting it?

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I entirely agree. In the 1940s and 1950s there might have been a case for the use of wild animals in circuses - those who wanted to see an elephant might have to go to the circus - but now people can watch the Discovery channel, for instance.

I have a feeling that the Government are running shy of the issue, because they are frightened of being told, "It is a nanny state: you are banning too much."

Rob Marris: A nanny goat?

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): No, a nanny state. According to MORI, 60 per cent. of people oppose the use of wild animals in circuses. The Government should decide to ban it, or give us a free vote on it.

Vera Baird: I would have preferred travelling circuses to be regulated, or indeed banned. I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend said about their incompatibility with the duty of care specified in clause 8. Is that not the key, however? Will it not prove impossible for travelling circuses to meet the requirements of clause 8, especially the five freedoms listed in subsection (2), and does that not mean that they will inevitably die out?

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): That is probably true, but if I asked the Minister, I am sure he would not say that the clause would ban wild animals in circuses. In 1998, the associate parliamentary group on animal welfare went into this issue in great depth and produced a report on it. It concluded that there was no justification at all for such behaviour.

I turn finally to an issue that concerns most of us. I am worried about the Government's commitment to dealing with - I am not going to use the easy phrase - the amputation of young dogs' tails. Such amputations are unnecessary, outdated and unethical, and should be stopped. We in this House have been told for many years that this issue presents no problem. In 1993, we voted through legislation banning breeders from docking puppies' tails. The previous year, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons had said that it was unethical for vets to dock tails for anything other medical reasons. Last year, however, some 70,000 of these so-called operations were carried out on puppies in this country. If the breeders and the vets are not performing them, who is? We need to ask that question, and the Government need to make it clear that they are against such practices. Apparently, the draft Bill was of that mind, but the Government have backtracked and said that they prefer to leave this issue to the individual and to individual breeders. If we do that, nothing will change; if we leave it to the Kennel Club, nothing will change.

Mr. Vaizey: Is not the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question that if vets are not doing it, it is illegal under current law? What would he do about working dogs, which are in danger of injuring their tails? In countries where tail docking is banned, tail injuries increase substantially.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): It is pretty obvious that if a dog has not got a tail, it is not going to injure it. I would ban all amputation of dogs' tails. We could look at the question of working dogs and if there was a large increase in tail injuries, we could perhaps introduce secondary legislation to change the law. However, that is not what we are talking about. I do not know about other Members, but until I received from the Dogs Trust a photograph of a very handsome boxer with a tail - I have it in my hand - I had not seen a boxer with a tail. Boxers are not working dogs. This is what we should be working toward.

I do not wish to say any more. I thanked the Minister when he came to do the APGAW reception for his command of his brief. I said then that it is a good Bill, which it is, but that it will be made better by amendment, and I still believe that.

5.18 p.m.


Bill Wiggin: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The RSPCA has asked not to be given, and has not been given, more powers. It has, however, been given a huge range of offences on which to prosecute. That is the difference, because the Bill will give it a huge opportunity to pursue prosecutions, while at the same time, it will have a vast range of animal welfare jobs that are totally separate from its prosecution role. Those conflicting roles are the problem, rather than what it has done in the past or the question of extra powers. I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that. It is very difficult to go round raising money to fight court cases at the same time as trying to protect sanctuaries.

Mr. Vaizey: May I endorse the point made by my hon. Friend in answer to the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker)? I forgot to mention in my speech a letter that I had received from a constituent who makes precisely that point. There is a debate worth having about the dual role of the RSPCA in campaigning on animal welfare issues and in leading prosecutions.

Bill Wiggin: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The hon. Member for Lewes should not see this as an attack on the RSPCA, which is walking a very difficult tightrope.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I think that it is an attack on the RSPCA, unless the hon. Gentleman can come up with an answer to the problem that he is posing.


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): ...I turn first to the use of wild animals in circuses. Very few circuses in this country still use wild animals in acts. To our knowledge, only seven circuses in total use animals at all, while only three use wild ones. By the way, Ellie the Elephant has been retired: she is no longer used in an act, and is only photographed.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): That means not only that she is not with others of her species, but that she is carted around the country all the time. Does my hon. Friend find that acceptable?

9:08 p.m.

Mr Bradshaw: I was about to explain that, although Ellie is no longer used in acts, she has been in captivity all her life. Given the level of public interest in the case, we have looked at the matter very carefully, as I am sure that my hon. Friend will acknowledge. The expert veterinary advice that we have received is that, at her age, and given that she is used to her present environment, it would be more distressing for her if she were put into a different one. That will hold true as long as her welfare needs are met, and I assure my hon. Friend that she has been inspected.

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On behalf of Eric Martlew, 3 Chatsworth Square Carlisle Cumbria CA1 1HB